Osito by Seth Stowaway: Inside a new San Francisco restaurant cooking its entire tasting menu over life fire

Osito promises wood-fired dishes and hearty meals for communal sharing

Osito opened on 17 December 2021

A week before Seth Stowaway was scheduled to open his new restaurant – his first ever – the chef wasn’t sleeping. Desperate to complete the construction on time, which involved a down-to-the-studs renovation, he had chosen to stay up all night and tile the kitchen himself. When he was done the next morning, he walked the block and a half through San Francisco’s Mission District to his home, took a shower and then returned to the restaurant to meet with his team.

“You get one shot to do something that’s really, really amazing,” he said of opening his inaugural restaurant. “If you want to do something that’s special and specific and unique, you have to build the whole thing.”

“There have been moments when I was hunched over the dinner table, hyperventilating, like, why did I do this? Why didn’t I just get a space that was already built and paint it? My wife would always remind me that I would [have been unsatisfied and] be looking to do this six months later.”

Stowaway’s special and specific and unique project, called Osito, is ambitious. It will be San Francisco’s only 100 per cent live-fire restaurant; there are no burners or microwaves in the kitchen, just a wood-burning oven and hearth. Using that sole heat source, the chef and his team will prepare a 24-plate tasting menu every night for a few dozen diners, who will be seated around a single communal table. The dishes will change daily.

Osito just opened for dinner service Friday, 17 December. It offers two ticketed dinners a night, with seatings at 5pm and 8.30 pm, for 26 diners. Tickets are now available on Tock.

Chef Seth Stowaway.

Also just opened Friday is Liliana, the restaurant’s sister bar. Located under the same roof as Osito, Liliana is a 28-seat (non-communal) cocktail bar with a more casual menu of snacks also prepared over the fire.

Even though Osito is Stowaway’s first solo restaurant, he’s been a fixture in Bay Area kitchens for 15 years. He was sous chef for chef Brandon Jew at Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown and executive chef at James Beard Award-winning Bar Agricole. Osito, or “little bear” in Spanish, comes from the nickname Stowaway’s colleagues gave him. (Think: jolly cartoon bear, not grizzly.)

“I’ve been cooking with fire my whole life,” Stowaway said. “I’m from South Texas and I spent half my time on a ranch cooking outside, and my whole career I’ve just been doing outside cooking and working in restaurants that have live fire. It’s my favorite way to cook. I love how elegant fire is and how delicate it is and then how out of control it can be all of a sudden.”

A few years ago, when he got the idea to do an exclusively live-fire restaurant, he began doing pop-ups around the Bay Area. In 2020, against all odds, he signed a lease for a permanent location in the Mission District. He assembled his kitchen team and tapped into his extensive network of makers, farmers, ranchers, artisans, foragers, purveyors and friends to bring the concept to life.

The Osito dining room is simple but feels lived in. Designed by Studio Terpeluk, the walls are clad in light gray Douglas fir. A nine-metre oak table, handmade by Yvonne Mouser in Oakland, stretches the length of the space. Custom chandeliers, made by Kurtis Major, are composed of brass tubes and work as an art installation and a light source, bouncing yellow and orange hues around the room. Reclaimed redwood details accent the space. Even the cutlery is made locally.

Everything will be cooked over fire

About a metre away from the communal table, the chef stands in the open kitchen. It’s dark in there, moody. Everything is made from iron and wood and soapstone. A large steel and brick hearth and oven, custom-built by blacksmith Jorgen Harle, is the centrepiece. It is primarily fueled with almond and oak wood.

While fire is the singular source of heat for the kitchen, Stowaway employs a variety of equipment and outdoor techniques to cook the meals. For example, things can be barbecued, hung over the coals on an asado cross, roasted in the oven or even sandwiched between two planchas. He likes the challenge.

“I think real creativity is about putting parameters on yourself,” he said. “How can I be as creative and high concept as possible with these limitations? It forces a certain intentionality. We have to pay so much attention to controlling the temperature and controlling the fire.”

The meal will include nine rounds of plates and will feature snacks, proteins carved tableside, banchan-style sides, desserts, cocktails and wines. All of the produce is fresh, pickled, fermented or preserved in Osito’s larder.

To give himself even more boundaries, Stowaway is dedicating every menu to a singular inspiration, which will change throughout the year. The meal could revolve around one animal like a whole pig or around a group of things or microclimates, “a specific part of the ecosystem that we think is really great at the moment.” In February, for example, the dinner will be dedicated to the bounty of the ocean. In spring and late summer, the menu will be all vegetables.

R&Ding dishes ahead of opening

The opening menu, which will run through January, will be focused on game birds. He envisions a dish of smoked pheasant breast salumi. The bird will be cured, sliced thin, marinated in hazelnut oil and garnished with a rehydrated fig jam. He also wants to make “fowl floss” similar to the way he made “pork floss” at Mister Jiu’s. The protein is steamed, cooked in a pan with spices and sugar, and paddled until it frays into a fluffy and light texture. At Osito, he’ll use it to top a dish of fermented brassicas, confit garlic and anchovies.

“It’s about how many different ways can we use the game birds,” he said. “We use fire, preservation and seasonality as our guiding light.”

Stowaway hopes that for these future menus he can offer free tickets to people in the Mission, because he wants to invest in his neighbourhood and supporters as they have invested in him. That includes his staff, guests, farmers, investors and even his landlord, who have all been intimately involved in the journey. To help float the team through opening night, for example, Stowaway partnered with SBMX, a platform that issues bonds for small businesses to the public. Believers could invest in Osito for as little as US$10 (S$14). The bonds will be repaid over time, with interest.

“We’ve been fully funded by our community, by our friends and our peers and our families, people walking alongside us and helping us get here,” he said. “Everyone chipped in, helping me lay tile or sand wood. I don’t see it as a negative pressure. It makes you want to do better, to do your best. It’s a huge blessing.”

This story was first published on Robb Report USA